There are risks inherent with basing a current television series on an ongoing U.S. military conflict, as FX is doing with its new Steven Bochco-helmed Over There. The series isn't afraid to take risks. But they're not the risks you'd expect to be taken.
As controversial a foreign-policy endeavor as the Iraq War has turned out to be, Over There strays away from politics or the preachy war-is-hell sermonizing of such shows as M*A*S*H. Instead, TV veteran Bochco and longtime collaborator Chris Gerolmo focus like laser-guided missiles on the personal stories of the soldiers themselves.
There's plenty of story there: We meet the members of the unit — six men, all front-line soldiers, and two women drivers — just ahead of their deployment to Iraq. Brief snippets of their home lives, some happy and some contentious, make us care just enough about the subjects to wonder how they'll hold up against the rigors of war.
The rigors begin right from the pilot, which seems to center around Bo Rider (Josh Henderson), a high-school athlete who didn't get a full football ride to Texas A&M, so he opted to make use of the G.I. Bill to pay the rest of his way. During the end of the episode, he's injured when the truck he's traveling in sets off an insurgent's booby trap.
The series then veers between Bo's struggle to recuperate in a U.S. military hospital in Germany and the rest of the platoon's missions in Iraq. The platoon's leader is Chris “Sgt. Scream” Silas, who's supposed to be headed home, but must spend another 90 days in Iraq because the new platoon's sergeant needed tonsillectomy. His view of the war is that the soldiers need to do what it takes to survive, and much of the show takes that rather pragmatic approach to life under fire.
But each individual soldier reacts differently. One of the female soldiers, Esmeralda “Doublewide” Del Rio (Lizette Carrion), is stoic in battle, trying to survive so she can return to her husband and child. Her counterpart, Brenda “Mrs. B” Mitchell (Nicki Aycox), is a terrified new recruit who is first seen on a payphone telling someone she's sure she'll be “on Nightline” as a listed casualty.
The platoon's African-American soldiers — Avery “Angel” King (Keith Robinson), an aspiring singer who joined the military “in anger” after failing to win a choir audition; and Maurice (“Smoke”) Williams (Kirk “Sticky” Jones), a street kid and stoner — are at odds with one another when Angel fails to share Smoke's us-vs.-them attitude with regards to their white comrades.
Perhaps the most introspective character is Frank “Dim” Dumphy, who almost instantly begins to have doubts about the mission and the whole idea of war. He's also dealing with a cheating wife at home who isn't looking after their 7-year-old son.
Over There's best features are its realistic, gory battle scenes — one in the pilot in which an insurgent is blown in half by a mortar shell is quite memorable — and the genuine way the platoon members interact with one another. When the soldiers arrive in Iraq, they're sent right into action and the fear in the trenches is palpable. As we follow the soldiers to a checkpoint and the interrogation of an insurgent prisoner in episode two, the tension remains wratcheted high.
Unfortunately, the show lags somewhat on the home front. It's as if so much care was taken in constructing the battle scenes that the stories of the families left behind can't help but lapse into cliché.
Over There bows July 27 at 10 p.m. on FX.